An Irresistible Call

By Anne Baer
Photos by Dr. Fred Melton

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A donated tent for school in remote village of Nepal

In choral music, performers have a wide variety of choices to set the stage, showcase their talents and engage both the audience and their fellow singers. The “call and response” style is one of the older methods. One voice sings out or “calls” the melody, and the audience, choir or an instrument responds. The first phrase is presented like a question that prompts the second phrase to reply. It’s a style known the world over, showing up in the music of sub-Saharan tribes as well in the latest Carly Rae Jepson single. Musicians favor this simple and applicable style since it allows them to build on each other’s musical offerings and work together to create a sound that’s inventive and collective.

It’s a style that almost perfectly describes Dr. Fred Melton’s own journey in dentistry. For Dr. Melton, the first response came during his travels with “Up With People” in the early ‘70s, a global education and arts organization that, through service and music, builds bridges to span cultural barriers and create understanding. Following high school, Dr. Melton toured with the group from 1973-1974, forging lifelong friendships and planting the seeds for a unique definition of ambassadorship through travel and service. Upon returning to the states, Dr. Melton’s journey continued with college courses focusing on Latin American studies and a minor in Spanish.

Like Father, Like Son
The next step on the path was less clear. He first explored a career in the State Department, but that endeavor did not gain much traction. Dentistry was not his first choice, but as his father was a dentist, Dr. Melton said, “I just decided to go with that.” Graduation from Baylor College of Dentistry was quickly followed by a one-year general practice residency at the University of Washington. From there, the New Mexican native chose to put down roots in Central Washington, first purchasing a practice in Leavenworth then in Wenatchee. But the desire to travel was a tune that kept playing in the background.

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Dr. Melton with an Egyptian dental student

Answering The Call
Operation Smile was one of the first major calls to which Dr. Melton responded. A medical mission team that brings together international doctors to repair cleft lips and palates, Operation Smile was a great way for him to experience how skill and the desire to see more of the world could combine to create substantive change. Dr. Melton says, “Using dentistry to make a difference in someone’s life is a way to have major impact. Individuals get to do what governments can’t do. And it’s these human connections I view as nothing short of micro-ambassadorships.”

The desire to explore persisted. Dr. Melton has travelled to Vietnam, Egypt (as part of Operation Smile), Afghanistan, Kenya (at Dr. Ray Damazo’s Maasai clinic), and Northern India near Pakistan. Along the way, others helped fill needs with donations of money or materials. In particular, the response from his Account Manager, Reedy Berg, has been steadfast. With Reedy’s help, Dr. Melton delivered much-needed pediatric forceps to a Nepalese dental school.

A Life Without Dental Pain
Dr. Melton explains, “In a way, I got my wish from long ago. On these trips, I consider myself a representative of the US. I consider it a unique and personal opportunity to show the world that human beings are the same wherever they live. We love our children, just like everyone else. We want to provide for our families. We’d prefer to live a life without dental pain.”

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Dr. Melton putting sealants in Northern Indian children

The Tune Continues
As the desire to see more of the world grew, a new phrasing entered Dr. Melton’s life. In 2012, he elected to sell his general dentistry practice and work as a part-time associate. This key change allowed him to travel to Nepal with Health Volunteers Overseas as their first dental volunteer. As Dr. Melton points out, “Frankly, I go mainly for me. It’s a selfish choice about where I want to be. I go where my heart is pulled, and I receive a thousand times more than I give.”

More Than Dentistry
Following last year’s major earthquake in Nepal, Dr. Melton again saw how this same lesson played out. The earthquake hit the day after he had wrapped up a two-week volunteering gig. Dr. Melton stayed on to help with clean-up, distribute clothing and assist in treating earthquake victims. With so much structural damage and continued after-shocks, finding a safe space to treat patients became an issue. Upon his return to the U.S., he turned to friends and colleagues for help: the alumni of his “Up With People” touring group, as well as local Wenatchee dentists and a former Baylor classmate. A resounding chorus of “Yes!” was the answer. Within a short period, over $10,000 was donated toward temporary shelter and the rebuilding of community infrastructure.

Pointing out the impact a few people can have, Dr. Melton states, “In these situations, people can and do donate a tremendous amount of money, but they don’t often know where it goes. I got to see the immediate and personal impact of the donation of four tents to provide classrooms in a village where teachers taught under wind-ripped plastic tarps.”

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Locals piling in to a truck at a Kenyan market

When asked why he continues to listen carefully and respond to the siren song of global dentistry, Dr. Melton explains: “I don’t see any greater human deed or experience than the attempt to lessen the suffering of others. The greatest pleasure dentistry has ever offered me is this ability to get people out of pain.

The Power of Face-to-Face Interaction
We can throw money at suffering. Unfortunately, the tossed dollars don’t always hit the target. Time is the only commodity leveling the playing field. We can make and give more money, but we can’t make more time. I truly believe it’s the face-to-face interactions of human beings that fundamentally change the world.“

That is a tune worth putting on “repeat.”

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